BOISE, Idaho (AP) — It's all about the weather. How many times have you heard that in a big game forecast?
There's a lot of truth to it, but if you want the two-second preview of the upcoming hunt, Toby Boudreau, Idaho Fish and Game's deer and elk coordinator, said expect hunting like last year.
"Most likely, success rates will be similar," he said. "It will be a good hunting season."
Weather is one of the biggest driving factors affecting big game herds and harvests.
This summer's dry conditions have been reflected by large wildfires, but fires aren't likely to affect statewide harvests.
We've had back-to-back dry years, which typically means light fawns, but we also had a mild winter.
Fish and Game's fawn monitoring showed about 60 percent of mule deer fawns statewide survived last winter, which is about 10 percent above average.
Those fawns from last year are now budding two-points, which make up a large part of the annual mule deer harvest.
Now let's turn to elk, which are hardier and less prone to winter kill. Winter conditions still affect them, but not as drastically as deer.
But Idaho Fish and Game biologists see a direct correlation between early snow and elk harvests. When it snows early, harvest tends to go up.
We were hit by snowstorms in October last year, and the deer and elk harvests ticked upward.
We've had a very hot, dry summer in much of the state, which can mean mixed things for hunters.
Drought dries up many water sources, such as small ponds, seeps and small streams, so animals tend to be concentrated near water larger water sources.
But if hot, dry weather persists into October big game seasons, hunters will face difficult conditions for stalking animals because it's noisy and game tends to hole up during hot weather.
If those early snowstorms arrive for a second year, it could tip things in the hunters' favor.
Of course, we're talking generalities, and Idaho is a large and diverse state.
Weather conditions in the Owyhee Desert in October will be much different than rain forests of North Idaho, or the mountains of Central or eastern Idaho.
While the state's game herds are overall healthy, they're certainly not static.
Many elk hunters will continue to be frustrated if harvests continue to shift away from the traditional hunting areas and general, any-weapon seasons.
And of course we can't forget about the elephant in the elk camp — wolves, which are holding their population numbers despite several seasons of hunting and now trapping.
Here are some more details for big game hunters.
Last fall, deer hunters killed 49,656 deer, a 12 percent increase from the 2011 harvest of 44,328 deer.
Fish and Game also saw a bump in deer tags sales for the first time since 2008. Tags sales were up from 132,068 in 2011 to 134,232 in 2012.
That made the success rate for deer hunters in 2012 about 37 percent versus 32 percent in 2011. However, success rates both years were actually higher because not all who buy tags actually hunt.
Mule deer narrowly edged out whitetails in the 2012 harvest, 25,073 versus 24,583. While that may look close to a tie, when you look at hunter success, whitetails probably get the nod.
Predominately whitetail units dominate the top five general season hunts for harvest and hunter success.
Fish and Game offers two tags, a general tag that allows a hunter to take either species, and a whitetail tag that allows a hunter to take only a whitetail but hunt during the November rut.
General deer tags are sold at nearly three times the rate of whitetail tags, according to Fish and Game statistics.
Although general tag hunters can also shoot either species, whitetail hunters tend to have a higher success rate because there are longer seasons and generous either-sex opportunities.
Elk hunters will probably see a similar harvest to last year, and if the last five years are an indicator, it will likely be within a couple thousand elk of last year's.
Harvest has been fairly steady since 2008, ranging from a high of 17,470 in 2010 to a low of 15,135 in 2011.
But Idaho's elk hunting is puzzling and hard to pin down due to many factors. One thing is clear, hunters killed more elk in 2012 than in 2011 — 16,369 versus 15,135.
But the number of elk hunters has been on a downward trend since 2008.
That year, Fish and Game sold 92,565 tags to hunters, compared with 80,577 elk tags last year — a drop of 11,088 tags in five years. Elk tag sales peaked at around 100,000 in the mid-1990s.
While statewide elk harvests have fluctuated in the last five years, fewer hunters means the statewide success rate has trended upward from about 17 percent in 2008 to about 23 percent last year.
So what's the deal with elk hunting?
Several factors are likely at play. The public perception that Idaho's elk herds have seen precipitous declines is out there, and it is partially true.
Fish and Game estimates Idaho's elk population is about 107,000 animals. The state is divided into 29 elk management zones, and most are meeting or exceeding Fish and Game's population objectives.
But the dark spots are pretty dark. There's been a steady shift of elk and hunters away from the classic elk country — the mountains and forests of Central Idaho and the Clearwater area that were traditionally popular during the October general season bull hunts.
According to Fish and Game's draft elk plan, "Since the mid-1990s, cumulative elk populations in the Lolo, Middle Fork, Sawtooth and Selway zones have declined from more than 30,500 elk to just over 14,500 (a 52 percent decline) since the mid-1990s."
Those elk herds "continue to be suppressed by predators and habitat declines," Fish and Game said.
The plan also states that herds in southern Idaho and the prairies and agricultural areas of North Idaho are "mostly robust."
Growing elk herds are now more likely to be found in rangeland and agriculture lands where hunters can have more difficulty accessing them because of private lands or tags are limited by controlled hunts.
The news is not all bad, and adaptable hunters have found success.
Some elk hunters have shifted their efforts from general any-weapon seasons targeting bull elk to archery seasons, muzzleloader seasons, either-sex controlled hunts and other opportunities.
The number of antlerless elk tags can also have a substantial effect on the overall elk harvest. In most places, Fish and Game limits cow tags, which tend to have a higher success rate.
Antlerless elk accounted for 41 percent of the 2012 elk harvest, according to Fish and Game statistics.
Part of the decline in elk tag sales can also be attributed to fewer nonresident tags sold.
That's partially due to the quality of elk hunting, but also due to the economy. A nonresident license and tag costs $571.50, which is more expensive than many neighboring states with comparable hunting quality.
Other states have also seen a drop-off in nonresident tags, which points to a weak economy that keeps hunters at home.
One can hardly talk about elk without wolves coming up, so here's an update on Idaho's wolf population.
Fish and Game estimated there were about 683 wolves at the end of 2012, which is down from a high of 856 in 2009.
But estimates are done in winter, and there's a spike in the population in the spring after pups are born.
Despite that, wolves are likely being held in check in parts of the state like Southern Idaho, where open terrain and conflicts with livestock mean high wolf mortality.
Hunters and trappers are also getting more effective at taking wolves.
"Hunters have made a pretty big impact," said Jon Rachael, state big game manager for Fish and Game.
Trappers are taking a larger percentage of the harvest. During the 2012-13 season, hunters killed 195 wolves and trappers caught another 119.
There were 425 known wolf deaths last year, which includes wolves killed for preying on livestock, and those poached or killed by other causes, Rachael said.
While that number may seem high, wolf populations can easily grow by 20 percent a year or more if unchecked, which means after spring pups, Idaho's 683 estimate from winter with 20 percent growth would be 819.
Wolf season opened Aug. 30. Fish and Game has reported six wolves harvested so far this season.
The original story can be found on the Idaho Statesman's website.
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